The Tough-Minded Optimist in the 21st Century
Among some of the most inspiring books I read in my 20s were those written by Norman Vincent Peale, a motivational minister and author, who died in 1993 at the seasoned age of 95. He was most known for writing The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), the precursor of so many books on similar themes, and a foundational piece behind the careers of scores of motivational speakers as well as the self-help/psychology movement. Like many good ideas in their time, his zeal for imparting a fairly revolutionary idea of looking at things from the bright side ensnared him in some controversy with the mental health community at the time. Looking back nearly 60 years, the impact his thinking had on our culture is clearer, and his enthusiasm understandable.
So it's from that perspective, and in my fervent effort to encourage the economics of happiness into our troubled society, that I want to highlight his enthusiastic ideas again today.
Zig Ziglar was once asked by an interviewer how he thought positive thinking could allow him to do absolutely anything. "Do you think you could whip Mohammed Ali?", the interviewer asked. In response, Ziglar said, "Even though I was an amateur boxer when I was young, no, I don't think I could whip Mohammed Ali in the ring. That's ridiculous! Positive thinking won't let you do anything .... but it will let you do everything better than negative thinking will."
And that's the point.
One of my favorite Ziglar quotes, by the way, had to do with this subject: "Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat, and bringing along the tartar sauce!"
But back to Peale. One of his later books was one entitled The Tough-Minded Optimist (1961). In it, he discusses how to avoid cynicism and despair in an increasingly difficult and destructive world. Here in 2010, we sometimes forget humankind has always had troubles and challenges; they were not reserved for our generation. As he describes it, being a tough-minded optimist is to see the worst in complete realism - acknowledge and endure it, but to continue to believe in the best. "A tough-minded optimist," Dr. Peale says, "is one who has what it takes to deal creatively with the harsh facts of human existence and still keep on believing in good outcomes."
The payoff of pessimism
Why is it so hard to keep focus on the best, most positive outcomes? One key realization is that having a negative or pessimistic perspective on life has the effect of drawing one toward that same end. But further, having an attitude of despair makes it nearly impossible to recognize opportunities, because so much attention is directed toward the anger and frustration of not getting. The act of acknowledging and still looking beyond for solutions and possibilities is a wider-scoped, more highly-developed thinking.
"We get a payoff for our pessimism which keeps us hooked. It creates misery, but serves our demand for control. There is more risk in being open to something positive because we cannot force positive things to occur. We can only be open to them and believe in the possibility. But when we predict the negative and expect only bad things, we squelch many good things or overlook them. Then we say, "I knew it would be this way," and in our misery we satisfy our self-centered craving to be in charge." ~ Touchstones
The ingredients of resilience
This brings me to the topic of resilience. What exactly is resilience?
- An individual’s positive behavioral adaptation when they encounter adversity, trauma, tragedy or significant amounts of psychological stress.
- The positive capacity of people to cope with stress and catastrophe
- A person’s ability to bounce back to homeostasis after a disruption.
Resilience and tough-minded optimism are obviously closely tied. One of the books I've studied recently on this subject is by David Richo titled The Five Things We Cannot Change ... and the Happiness We Find By Embracing Them . In it, Dr. Richo describes the "givens" that are the source of all our troubles, which are:
1. Everything changes and ends.
2. Things do not always go according to plan.
3. Life is not always fair.
4. Pain is a part of life.
5. People are not loving and loyal all the time.
Simple, right? So then why do we continue to fight them? A resilient, tough-minded person sees life as it really is - face-on, without delusions, and without trying to skip over or circumvent what IS. He deals with things, absorbs and grows from experience (as Karen Salmansohn points out in The Bounce Back Book , "fear of pain is often worse than the pain itself"). He sees "that having to be in control may not be in our best interest: we might upset mighty plans that are afoot on our behalf." Richo further writes, "beings as complex and creative as we are could not be satisfied in a world without soul-stretching givens."
I tackled a similar topic in my previous hub The Economics of Happiness, which dealt with the collective value of our sense of hope and happiness on consumer confidence, and by extension the economy, and the betterment of our world.
Looking for stories!
For years, I subscribed to The Sun magazine, not for their articles, but because of "Reader's Write", a section where they choose a topic, and readers write short letters describing their experience related to that theme. Raw. Authentic.
In the 1950s Edward R. Murrow broadcast a radio series titled "This I Believe", where individuals told about their convictions, their firmly-held beliefs, in order to share their experiences so others could learn from them. More recently is the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, which provide inspirational stories written by individuals about life experiences, in every category imaginable - and I doubt many people have not heard of that series.
This year, I've decided to tackle this topic of toughness and resilience, personally and professionally. I've located a lengthy bibliography of sources for my research, I'm preparing an outline for a class I plan to give this Spring, and I'm considering writing my first non-fiction book on this theme. I don't know whether this will materialize - I'm not in charge of the outcome; only the input.
So I'm interested in hearing your stories of resilience, of overcoming challenges or of circumstances where you or someone you know has had to practice tough-mindedness to deal with a problem. You may leave out names or request to remain anonymous. You're invited either to email your experience to firstname.lastname@example.org or post in the comment section below.
I'm grateful in your interest and positive thoughts regardless of whether you choose to submit anything.
"Many of the great achievements of the world were accomplished by tired and discouraged men who kept on working." ~ Anonymous
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." ~ Oscar Wilde
"Learn from yesterday. Live for today. Hope for tomorrow." ~ Albert Einstein
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